Ag chief: Use federal programs for rural Internet access

CHAMPAIGN — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged rural communities in East Central Illinois to take advantage of federal programs to help make high-speed Internet access available in their areas.

In an interview Thursday with The News-Gazette, Vilsack expanded on President Barack Obama’s call Wednesday to make fast, affordable broadband available to more parts of the country.

Vilsack said his department’s Community Connect program makes grants for broadband and will soon reopen its loan program, which provides financing for broadband in unserved and under-served areas.

High-speed Internet service can make a tremendous difference to businesses, teachers and doctors in rural areas, Vilsack said.

Not having access to broadband makes businesses less competitive, he said. Without it, they can’t extend their market beyond the local region, he said.

“If you’re a rural school superintendent, you may not be able to hire a teacher to teach an advanced-placement course,” he said. But with broadband, the district can link up with adjoining districts so students can remotely take part in such courses.

“You don’t have to limit educational opportunity if you have this technology,” Vilsack said.

Likewise, doctors confronted with unusual medical cases may not have to send patients “hundreds of miles” to tertiary-care hospitals, if the doctors are equipped with broadband.

“They can consult with an expert online, and the patient can be examined online,” he said.

Vilsack said it’s sometimes hard for conventional broadband providers to make a business case for extending access to sparsely populated areas.

In other areas where there’s little or no competition, people may have access to broadband, but it’s priced so high they can’t afford it, Vilsack said.

President Obama, who is expected to address connectivity in his State of the Union address Tuesday, is encouraging municipal networks to provide broadband service and pave the way for competition to conventional providers, such as cable and telephone companies.

Vilsack said that as a result of the economic stimulus package, $3 billion was spent on 300 projects to expand broadband. As a result, more than 62,000 miles of cable were laid, improving access to 183,000 households in rural areas, plus many businesses, schools and health care facilities.

The Agriculture Department’s Community Connect program alone has spent $66 million expanding access to Internet and broadband. Plus, Congress authorized up to $200 million in additional investments when it passed the farm bill last year, he said.

Community Connect is targeted specifically for small rural communities, Vilsack said. The grants can range from $200,000 to $1 million, depending on the scope of the project, he added.

Vilsack said the department is still in the process of writing rules and regulations of how the new money should be distributed to unserved and under-served areas.

According to Vilsack, rural communities interested in expanding broadband access should:

— Seek technical assistance from BroadbandUSA, a program of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

— Contact the USDA’s Rural Development office and ask for information on Community Connect.

Vilsack said there has been bipartisan support for financing assistance for broadband access in rural communities.

But he suggested some Republicans would not support Obama’s call for the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws that restrict municipal broadband networks.

“There may be some push-back from some of the regulatory relief the president is asking for,” Vilsack said.

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peterharry wrote on November 03, 2016 at 8:11 am

Well, I think high speed internet is necessary from indivisual to organization as it grows the economy of the country. 

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